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Insights into Editorial: RIC, a triangle that is still important

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Context:

In recent, India attended a (virtual) meeting of the Foreign Ministers of Russia, India and China (RIC).

Amid the tensions on the Line of Actual Control, the dominant calls were for a more decisive westward shift in India’s foreign policy. A RIC meeting seemed incongruous in this setting.

About RIC:

RIC is a strategic grouping that first took shape in the late 1990s under the leadership of Yevgeny Primakov, a Russian politician as “a counterbalance to the Western alliance.”

The group was founded on the basis of ending its subservient foreign policy guided by the USA and renewing old ties with India and fostering the newly discovered friendship with China.

Together, the RIC countries occupy over 19% of the global landmass and contribute to over 33% of global GDP.

The RIC is a significant multilateral grouping, because it brings together the three largest Eurasian countries which are also incidentally geographically contiguous. RIC, hence provides a worthwhile platform to discuss issues like West Asia, Afghanistan, climate change, terrorism, regional connectivity, tensions on Korean Peninsula, etc.

The initial years of transition to multi-polar world:

  1. When the RIC dialogue commenced in the early 2000s, the three countries were positioning themselves for a transition from a unipolar to a multipolar world order.
  2. It was not an anti-U.S. construct; all three countries considered their relationship with the United States an essential prop to their global ambitions.
  3. The RIC shared some non-West (as distinct from anti-West) perspectives on the global order, such as an emphasis on sovereignty and territorial integrity, impatience with homilies on social policies and opposition to regime change from abroad.
  4. Their support for democratisation of the global economic and financial architecture moved to the agenda of BRIC (with the addition of Brazil).
  5. The initial years of the RIC dialogue coincided with an upswing in India’s relations with Russia and China.
  6. The advent of President Vladimir Putin reinforced the political, defence and energy pillars of the India-Russia strategic partnership.
  7. With China, the 2003 decision to bring a political approach to the boundary dispute and to develop other cooperation, encouraged a multi-sectoral surge in relations.
  8. An agreement in 2005, identifying political parameters applicable in an eventual border settlement, implicitly recognised India’s interests in Arunachal Pradesh.

Strategic Subtext to India-U.S. and Russia-China ties:

  1. India’s relations with the U.S. surged, encompassing trade and investment, a landmark civil nuclear deal and a burgeoning defence relationship that met India’s objective of diversifying military acquisitions away from a near-total dependence on Russia.
  2. There was a strategic sub-text: as China was rapidly emerging as a challenger to its global pre-eminence, the U.S. saw value in partnering with a democratic India in Asia.
  3. Transformations in the external environment impacted on these political equations.
  4. Among other irritants, China went back on the 2005 agreement, launched the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, worked to undermine India’s influence in its neighbourhood and expanded its military and economic presence in the Indian Ocean.
  5. The texture of the relationship with Russia also changed, as India-U.S. collaboration widened in defence and the Indo-Pacific.
  6. As U.S.-Russia relations imploded in 2014 (after the annexation/accession of Crimea), Russia’s pushback against the U.S. included cultivating the Taliban in Afghanistan and enlisting Pakistan’s support for it.
  7. The western campaign to isolate Russia drove it into a much closer embrace of China particularly in defence cooperation than their history of strategic rivalry should have permitted.

Russia-India-China Grouping Significance:

  1. The Russia-India-China engagement still has significance. India is in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which is driven by Russia and China and includes four Central Asian countries.
  2. Central Asia is strategically located, bordering our turbulent neighbourhood. A sliver of land separates Tajikistan from Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.
  3. Pakistan’s membership of SCO and the potential admission of Iran and Afghanistan (as member states) heighten the significance of the SCO for India.
  4. Growing Chinese influence is testing the informal Russia-China understanding that Russia handles the politico-security issues in the region and China extends economic support.
  5. It is important for India to shape the Russia-China dynamics in this region, to the extent possible. The Central Asian countries have signalled they would welcome such a dilution of the Russia-China duopoly.
  6. The ongoing India-Iran-Russia project for a sea/road/rail link from western India through Iran to Afghanistan and Central Asia, is an important initiative for achieving an effective Indian presence in Central Asia, alongside Russia and China.
  7. The bilateral arms of the India-Russia-China triangle will also remain important. The defence and energy pillars of India’s partnership with Russia remain strong.
  8. Access to Russia’s abundant natural resources can enhance our materials security the importance of which has been highlighted by COVID-19. With China too, while the recent developments should accelerate our efforts to bridge the bilateral asymmetries, disengagement is not an option.
  9. We have to work bilaterally and multilaterally on a range of issues, even while firmly protecting our interests on the border, in technology and the economy.

The Indo-Pacific issue: perspectives of various countries:

The elephant in the RIC room is the Indo-Pacific.

For India, it is a geographic space of economic and security importance, in which a cooperative order should prevent the dominance of any external power.

China sees our Indo-Pacific initiatives as part of a U.S.-led policy of containing China.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry sees the Indo-Pacific as an American ploy to draw India and Japan into a military alliance against China and Russia.

India’s focus on economic links with the Russian Far East and activation of a Chennai-Vladivostok maritime corridor may help persuade Russia that its interests in the Pacific are compatible with our interest in diluting Chinese dominance in the Indo-Pacific; this also accords with President Putin’s concept of a Greater Eurasia.

Autonomy of action should be part of India’s Policy towards China:

The current India-China stand-off has intensified calls for India to fast-track partnership with the U.S. This is an unexceptionable objective, but is not a silver bullet.

National security cannot be fully outsourced. India’s quest for autonomy of action is based on its geographical realities, historical legacies and global ambitions not a residual Cold War mindset.

Conclusion:

India is committed to protect its sovereignty and territorial integrity in the border areas and RIC would give the platform for resolution of differences (along the Indo-China Border) through dialogue.

As noted, RIC dynamics are sensitive to the configuration of the U.S.-Russia-China triangle.

This configuration changed in 2008 (the global economic crisis) and again in 2014 (Crimea’s accession to Russia).

COVID-19 could trigger another change, which could be modulated by the outcome of the U.S. Presidential elections.

The RIC forms the core of both the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and the BRICS as greater cooperation between China, India and Russia would lead to strengthening of both SCO and BRICS.